What’s the deal with Gmail?

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If you’ve been connected to the ‘net at all in the past few months, you can’t have missed the hype surrounding Gmail, Google’s new 1 GB webmail service. Going one up on the phenomenally successful word of mouth campaign that launched their search engine to stardom, Gmail’s invite-only policy has created the kind of buzz most marketers can only dream about. But aside from the storage space gimmick and the fact that it’s a product from Google, why should you care about Gmail?

The answer is that it turns many preconceptions about web application interfaces upside down.

Gmail is slick, smooth and very, very fast. It’s speed in displaying messages and switching between different views rivals that of desktop mail clients, and many of the features on offer (the innovative threading and the outstanding search capabilities) are leaps and bounds ahead of regular applications. This is a web app that for the most part works better than its desktop equivalents.

From the technical side of things, the performance boost is achieved using a particularly clever piece of JavaScript trickery. The bulk of the Gmail application is loaded in to memory in a hidden frame the first time you visit the site. From that point on, emails, thread listings and other views are loaded from the server as ultra light-weight JavaScript data structures. Bandwidth usage is minimal, and response times over broadband are virtually negligible from the user’s perspective. Even the email address auto-completion (a particularly slick piece of the Gmail puzzle) calls back to the server on every key stroke!

Sadly, this increased performance comes at a heavy cost. Gmail is the least web-like web application I’ve ever seen: everything is accessed through the same URL, and a large number of common browser operations such as opening links in new windows simply don’t work. A corollary to this is that Gmail suffers from atrocious accessibility, which lead me to ask a few weeks ago if apps of this sort were the exception to the rule that alternative “accessible” versions of sites are a bad idea.

At any rate, the ultra-rich internet application field is heating up, with Yahoo! buying out Oddpost just last Friday. I haven’t seen much of OddPost myself due to it being an IE/Windows only affair, but it’s an almost pixel-perfect Outlook clone implemented in DHTML, which appears to be a forerunner to Gmail in loading the application scripts once and then communicating with the server using as little overhead as possible.

Are these kinds of apps good for the web going forward? I’m not sure – but they’re certainly bringing Joel Spolsky’s vision of HTML as the next major application platform forward ahead of schedule.

Simon WillisonSimon Willison
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